Finding Strength in my Filipino American Identity


With a few of my cousins, their significant others, and their children celebrating at our youngest cousin’s debut.

One of the reasons I’m happy it’s October is because it’s Filipino American History Month. Filipinos have a long history — we were the first group of Asians in the United States, landing on the shores of Morro Bay, California on the ships of the Spanish galleon. We’ve established a rich history of ethnic enclaves, food, music, and social justice. As a child of Filipino immigrants and as part of a gigantic Filipino family, I know that I have a place in Filipino American history, too.

I grew up in a small Chicago suburb called Mundelein. Mundelein is majority white but does have a small and mighty Filipino community. We even had our own community organization. I have fond memories of the Filipino American Association of Mundelein that bring me back to community picnics where the smell of hot pork BBQ skewers perfumed the July air and winters of Simbang Gabi which was followed by Christmas parties that were filled with endless line dancing.

When I wasn’t celebrating with my local community, I was with my family. It seemed like we were celebrating one of my cousins’ birthdays every Saturday. Food was always plentiful and the buffet was lined with my favorite foods, like my Tita’s pancit, my Tito’s barbeque, and freshly fried lumpia. And there were desserts, like sago, puto, pitsi pitsi (my all-time favorite), and biko (my Lola made the best). This was home, this was my heart, this is was the core of my being.

When I was eight years old, my Ate Vanessa interviewed me for an assignment. I told her that I had hopes of becoming a musical artist. I wasn’t the best singer, but I said that I hoped I would make it big one day, so I could open doors for other Filipino American artists in the future. The vision that eight-year-old me had become real when I was 19.

In the late 2000s, there was a rise in Asian American talent popping up on platforms like MySpace and YouTube. It was the rise of the Asian American entertainer. I spent hours watching singers like Passion and Gabe Bondoc and got lost in all the amazing dancers from California. It was a new world that was helping me expand my identity beyond what I was experiencing in Chicago. There was so much happening on the west coast, and as a broke student, flying to attend these events was impossible. I said to myself “The community needs something like this here in Chicago, start something.” So, I did.

In the summer of 2008, I founded ManilaStar Events, a grassroots nonprofit to connect the Asian American community in the greater Chicago area with the arts. Our community in Chicago was large, but we didn’t have a strong voice for young people to celebrate their heritage and identity, which is why I was so passionate about this project. I had no idea how to run a business, or how to put on music showcases and dance workshops. But I had a vision that spoke to my heart, and the determination that only 19-year-olds have. The success of our first major event showed me that the Chicago community needed this. It showed me that my vision of the community was valid and achievable. After the successes of ManilaStar, I set my eyes on California, the place that helped me realize the diverse talent of our community. I wanted to help artists reach their dreams regardless of what Hollywood and the country perceived us to be. Since moving to California, I’ve taken the time to learn about the community both locally and nationally. I possess the same goals I had when I was 19 and plan to take all that I have learned to fruition soon.

Now 29, I have come to realize how my rich Filipino American heritage and pride helped build the foundation for my activism and allyship. The immense pride I have in being Filipino and Filipino American was fostered with much care and love by the people around me. It was a critical piece in becoming who I am today. The passion I see from my kababayan (fellow Filipinos) as they create their Filipino American identities, and from fellow activists as they organize and mobilize the community is so inspiring. I know that finding your place in this world and pride in your identity creates a strength and passion that will only get stronger. I remind myself of my roots and the shoulders I’m standing on, and tell myself to continue to build so we can stand together and then have the next generation stand on our shoulders.

By: Jeff DeGuia, Communications Coordinator



Advancing Justice Southern California (AJSOCAL)

AJSOCAL is the nation's largest legal aid and civil rights organization serving the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander community